In September 2006, news agencies reported that Sony's soon-to-be-released PlayStation was more than a game console. Sony and Stanford University's Folding@home project had created a distributed computing application for the PS3 that allows owners to donate their consoles' processing power to scientific research.
Computer users may already be familiar with distributed computing, whereby huge processing tasks are broken into smaller chunks and lots of home computers then process the data simultaneously while they're switched on yet idle. One popular example of such an application, SETI@home, allows idle computers to process data from radio telescopes.
Folding@home allows scientists to study protein assembly, known as folding. Incorrectly folded proteins can cause serious illnesses, so scientists hope to simulate exactly how the process occurs. Any one computer lacks the power to recreate the folding process, but a distributed computing system can eventually recreate a fold. The simulations may help doctors discover how to treat or prevent cancer, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and other afflictions.
Not only can Folding@home run on home computers, it can operate on the PlayStation 3. That's because, unlike earlier-generation game consoles, the PS3 has considerable processing power, a large hard drive and a network connection.
For every 10,000 PlayStation 3 users who download and use the free Folding@home application, the system will be able to make 1,000 trillion calculations per second. Once installed, the application will:
- Contact the Folding@home server to retrieve an assignment.
- Perform the necessary calculations while the console is idle.
- Connect to a Stanford University server and upload results when the work is finished.